They Didn't Ask, He Didn't Tell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 1998; Page A13
Greeted with warm applause and affection, President Clinton joined House Democrats yesterday for an old-fashioned political schmooze. They talked about health care, Social Security, vetoing Republican bills and beating Republican opponents in November. They didn't talk about Monica S. Lewinsky.
"Does this cross people's minds?" asked Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), commenting on the Lewinsky matter. "I'd be naive if I didn't think so, but I have enough anguish to deal with without that. I'll deal with it when it comes up. Let the evidence come out."
For one day, at least, members chose to ignore it. They asked Clinton nothing whatsoever about his relationship with the former White House intern or his scheduled Aug. 17 testimony to the grand jury: "We are not going to spend a lot of our very limited time worrying about this," said caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (D-Calif.).
Instead of questions, Clinton found sympathy and solidarity among an occupational group for whom scandal or potential scandal is a daily reality: "People in politics in general understand the kind of personal attack he's had to withstand and recognize a guy who is standing up under a great deal of pressure," said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.). "People recognize that our job is not to be fixated on these kind of sultry personal issues."
At least until they have to, which, many say, means until they think their reelections may be affected by the scandal. "My answer is the same as its always been," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) facing a tough reelection race in a conservative district. "I can wait until the facts are out, and August 17 looks like D-Day."
For Clinton, the morning caucus was the third of three meetings he had had with key Democratic groups in less than 24 hours. Members of the Hispanic Caucus met with him at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, and he attended a fund-raiser hosted by Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) Tuesday evening.
In all cases, members said, they sought to reassure the president of their personal loyalty and at the same time plot party strategy for the midterm elections: "We're not fair-weather friends," Waters told Clinton at the fund-raiser, which earned $300,000 for House Democratic candidates. "We will be with you to the end."
While others were not as effusive in their support, virtually all lawmakers interviewed after the meetings were eager to ally themselves with a popular president, and ignore a scandal that they said scarcely registered on their constituents' consciousness.
"I've had several dozen town meetings and the issue has not arisen," said Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.). "The president's standing and job approval rating is higher than it's ever been; hence his ability to push the nation forward is higher than it's ever been."
Yesterday morning's meeting in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office building, according to the account of members, began with short introductions by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Vice President Gore before Clinton stepped to the microphone.
Greeted with a standing ovation so prolonged that he had to motion for members to sit down, Clinton talked for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes about the Democrats' favorite campaign issues: preserving Social Security, reform for managed health care, education and the environment: "We plan to raise issues, raise money and raise Cain!" he said at one point, to general applause.
He said he would not sign any Republican bill that attempted to spend budget surpluses on tax cuts without first ensuring the safety of the Social Security trust fund. He promised to veto a spending bill that sought to block the use of statistical sampling in the 2000 census.
And as he began taking questions from his audience, it became clear that members had more in common with their president than is usual among the fractious Democrats: "Usually you get someone who says 'you need to do this or that,' but there was none of that today," said Hispanic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) complimented Clinton for hanging tough on Social Security. Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), thanked Clinton for backing emergency plans for farmers hard-hit by floods and drought.
And Stenholm, whose conservatism frequently puts him at odds with his party colleagues, provoked cheers and applause when he told Clinton that "it feels good to be part of the team again."
Later Stenholm explained that balancing the budget, welfare reform and preserving Social Security had given him "something I can run for and with" this fall, "rather than run away from." Democrats "became the minority the old-fashioned way," he said. "We earned it. Now we're doing some things to earn our way back to the majority."
At a fund-raiser last night with Clinton and Gore, Gephardt said his constituents are uninterested in the Lewinsky case, telling him, " 'Please stop all the investigations and do the agenda we are interested in.' "
Even though there was "a desire not to discuss what we don't need to discuss" regarding the Lewinsky matter, Rep. Jose A. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said, it proved hard for some members to find a way to tell Clinton they supported him.
"It just didn't come up," Serrano said of Tuesday's Hispanic Caucus meeting. "Finally, I reminded him that I had been with him in the heat of New York before anybody got on his bandwagon, and I had run three miles with him in Washington in near-zero weather," Serrano said. " 'No matter how hot or how cold it is,' I told him, 'I'm with you.' "
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Juliet Eilperin and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company